A Russian Gil Blas, censorship, and Jewish characters in Russian literature
I’m quite late in linking to Languagehat’s post on Narezhnyi’s A Russian Gil Blas (Российский Жилблаз, 1814), which makes the book sound delightful and is a delight itself. Coincidentally he quotes Ronald D. LeBlanc (whose article on Dostoevskii and carnality I just read) at some length.
A Russian Gil Blas had trouble with the censors. George Grabowicz wrote that its suppression resulted from the “acuity of Narezhny’s satire, a satire animated by Enlightenment rationalism and moralism,” which “encompasses the various strata of society and shows vice and iniquity in its endless manifestations.” But LH reports Leo Livak’s argument that it was banned because it positively portrays a Jewish character.
Though I had never seriously considered the matter, it had seemed to me as a reader that Jewish characters were rare in Russian literature in the first half of the nineteenth century, appearing suddenly in large numbers in the 1860s and 1870s, and portrayed negatively even by writers who were or had been secular and cosmopolitan in outlook. In particular I thought that Dostoevskii and Nekrasov wrote next to nothing about Jews in the 1840s but lots in the 1860s and 1870s. Leskov’s anti-Jewish prejudice seems to peak in stories from 1878 and 1882, to be followed by the didactic, repentant “Tale of Theodore the Christian and His Friend Abraham the Hebrew” (Сказание о Федоре-христианине и о друге его Абраме-жидовине, 1886; see McLean 418-35). My naive assumption was that something had changed in Russian life, perhaps that more Jews were allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement during the era of great reforms, so that non-Jewish St. Petersburg and Moscow writers responded to their new neighbors as a new phenomenon. Before Alexander II, I assumed that in the capitals writers just weren’t thinking about the Jews, who lived somewhere out in the western provinces. (In this connection it may be significant that Narezhnyi and Gogol were Ukrainian.) Livak makes me wonder if the censors just permitted less writing about Jews before the 1860s.
Here’s the anti-Jewish passage that shocked me in Nekrasov (from “The Ballet”/Балет, 1866):
Вообще в бельэтаже сияло
Много дам и девиц красотой.
Очи чудные так и сверкали,
Но кому же сверкали они?
Доблесть, молодость, сила — пленяли
Сердце женское в древние дни.
Наши девы практичней, умнее,
Идеал их — телец золотой,
Воплощенный в седом иудее,
Потрясающем грязной рукой
I’m almost sure this image would have been absent in an 1840s Nekrasov poem or an 1840s description of a Russian theater, for whatever reason.
Narezhnyi also leads LH to look into the etymology of “fedora.”